1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 87:



Chapter 33



            “There’s something very peculiar going on over there, I tell you.” Elizabeth Lytle finished pouring the broth and started passing out the cups to the three men sitting at her kitchen table.


            “What? Followed her, did you?” asked Richard Towson, nodding his thanks.


            “Good idea, that,” said Patrick Welch, blowing on his broth to cool it off. “Just in case this friend Juliet of hers might turn out to be an informer of some sort.”


            Liz gave him a disdainful look. “Not likely! If you knew her the way I do…” After setting down the kettle, she gave her short dark hair a little toss. “I was just curious, really. There’s something… mysterious about her, now. Not like she used to be.”


            “It’s been years since you saw her, love,” pointed out Anthony Leebrick calmly. “While she was on the continent.”


            “Not that many years. And what difference does it make, anyway? George is still with her, so nothing fundamental’s changed. I met him too, on one of my lunch encounters with Juliet. He hasn’t changed a bit, from what I can tell.”


            “Are those wise in the first place?” asked Richard. A bit carefully, since Liz had something of a temper.


            “I suggested she do so,” said Anthony. “Avoiding an old friend completely when there was no obvious reason to do so was more likely to cause suspicion.”


            “Let’s get back to the point,” said Welch. “Since you followed her, what did you discover?”


            Liz sat down and stared pensively at her own cup of broth. “The first thing I discovered was that I couldn’t get near the house she’s living at. Not without being spotted by several pairs of eyes. Very keen ones, too, let me tell you. There are men in that house, several of them, and at least one other woman. And two other men lounging about the tavern nearby, that don’t belong there.”


            Welch looked dubious. “And how could you tell if they belonged there or not? People come in and out of Southwark all the time. It’s hardly what you’d call a stodgy little village.”


            “They didn’t look right,” Liz insisted. “Too alert. Too fit looking. At least, too fit-looking for men who weren’t swaggering about bullying people and looking for a fight. They made me edgy. They spotted me as soon as I entered the street and their eyes kept following me the whole time I was there. I felt like a plump mouse being watched by cats.”


            Towson hid his smile behind his cup. Leebrick cleared his throat, a bit smugly. Patrick, undiplomatic as usual, barked a harsh little laugh. “For the love of all that’s holy, Liz. Men do have a habit of eyeing you, y’know?”


            “Excluding our couth selves,” added Richard. “But he’s got a point, Liz.”


            She gave both him and Welch an exasperated look. “Let me see if I understand this. Your suggesting to me—a woman whose past bears no close scrutiny—that some men are lecherous. Oh, dear. I never would have guessed.”


            Towson chuckled. Welch tipped his cup a little, in a gesture that acknowledged a hit had been scored.


            Elizabeth Lytle had inherited a number of things from her Portuguese mother, along with her dark eyes, slender frame, and attractive appearance. Among them was a wide mouth that lent itself very nicely to a derisive expression. “Tell a former whore about the salacious nature of the male sex, will you? I believe I am quite familiar with that phenomenon, Patrick Welch, thank you very much. And I’m telling you those two men weren’t thinking of bedding me. They were contemplating—not seriously, simply as a possible measure—whether they might have to slit my throat.”


            Her slim shoulders shivered slightly. “Scary, they were, in a quiet sort of way. I’m telling you, they didn’t belong there. They’re up to something. Some sort of criminal enterprise.”


            “That hardly makes them out of place in Southwark,” said Leebrick. “They might have no connection to Juliet and George at all, you know?”


            Liz sipped slowly at her tea, thinking about it. Then, shook her head. “I can’t prove it, Anthony, but I think they do. The tavern they were sitting outside of—with the table they’d chosen—allowed them to keep Juliet’s house under observation. Along with the rest of the street leading to it. Well, part of the house, at least. It’s set back a ways from the street, right close to the river.”


            Leebrick looked at his two companions. After a moment, Towson shrugged. “The hunt for us has died down. As many weeks as it’s been since we escaped Cork, by now they must think we’re out of England entirely. They certainly don’t think we’re anywhere in London. And I, for one, am sick to death of never seeing anything except the inside of Liz’s lodgings. Meaning no offense, you understand.”


            Patrick scowled, slightly. But the expression was more a matter of habit than anything concrete and specific to the moment. Perhaps because he was Irish, Welch was the sort of man who just naturally looked for the trap, the moment he spotted a juicy morsel. That made him occasionally annoying, in casual circumstances, but it also made him a superb officer to lead reconnaissance missions.


            “I’ve got no objections,” he announced, after a few seconds. Again, he made that little tip-of-the-cup acknowledging gesture, this time at Leebrick. “I will admit—not that I’ll sign anything to that effect, mind—that our gallant commander has proven to be right. Hiding in London was a stroke of genius. The hunt passed right over our heads, and they’ll never think of looking for us here now. So why not move about some, finally?”


            His sneer was even better than Elizabeth’s. “We have the added protection, after all, of the portraits they circulated everywhere on reward notices. A man could have those posters in his hand, be staring right at us—and he’d swear there was no resemblance at all.”


            Leebrick chuckled. “They were wretched, weren’t they? I was quite offended, actually. The only thing they got right was our beards.”


            Smiling, Towson tugged at the goatee of his Van Dyck. “So they did. Doesn’t help much, though, does it? Seeing as how every other man in England—half the continent, too—shares the same style. They showed us wearing clothing, too. Thereby clearly distinguishing us from all the traitors running about the island stark naked.”


            Leebrick finished his cup. “Fine, then. Liz, draw us up a little map, would you? We’ll go tonight, and see what your friend is about.”


            She frowned. “Why don’t I just guide you?”


            Welch shook his head. “Not a good idea. You said yourself those two men watched you closely. Even in the dark, they’ll recognize you.”


            “Oh, nonsense. I’ll wear a bonnet.”


            Patrick scratched his head and said nothing. For a wonder, a spasm of diplomacy seemed to have seized him.


            Leebrick smiled. Towson chuckled outright. “Won’t matter if they see your face, girl. They’ll recognize your walk.”


            “My walk?


            “Yes. You have a certain way of… well, you’re not prancing, exactly. But it’s quite distinctive.”


            She gave her paramour a sharp, suspicious glance. Anthony’s smile widened. “I’m afraid he’s right, love. First thing I noticed about you, when we met. Well. More precisely, when I first spotted you on the street and began following you. We hadn’t actually met yet. Quite entrancing, it was.”


            She sniffed, disdainfully. “Men. It’s a wonder you get anything done.”


            Since everyone had finished, she gathered up the cups. “All right, but be careful. They really are rather frightening-looking people.”




            At least, they’d allowed him paper and a pen. So Thomas Wentworth was able to communicate with his wife in some manner, even if it was ridiculous to be writing letters to a woman whom he could have spoken to in person by simply taking a two minute walk from the Bloody Tower to the Lieutenant’s Lodging. But Sir Francis Windebank refused to allow Thomas to leave the Bloody Tower, for any reason, and he refused to allow him visitors of any sort. Not even his wife and children.


            Naturally, they wouldn’t allow him to seal the letters he wrote. Windebank’s men would read every line before they passed the letters on to Elizabeth—and the same, with any of her replies.


            Once the shock of those first days had passed, Thomas had been able to gauge the near-maniacal manner of his imprisonment for what it was. A sign of fear on Cork’s part, not confidence. Richard Boyle had come to power by seizing on a fluke, not by dint of anything more substantial. True, he’d had a powerful faction following him already, but so had several other men. It had only been the terrible nature of the completely unforeseen accident combined with Cork’s sheer luck in being in the right place at the right time—and his own decisiveness, of course; Thomas would give him that much credit—that had allowed the earl to seize power in a single day.


            Wentworth wondered again, as he had so many times since he’d been overthrown, whether Cork’s presence at the scene of the accident had simply been fortuitous. The coincidence reeked, after all. But, no matter from what angle he examined the problem, he simply couldn’t see any way that Boyle could have manipulated the situation. Not the accident itself, at any rate. He’d certainly manipulated the aftermath. It was blindingly obvious, in retrospect, that the warning brought to Thomas that the king had suffered a mishap on the West Road was a ploy of Boyle’s—and, for perhaps the hundredth time since that day, Wentworth cursed himself for having been a fool. If he’d simply stayed at Whitehall and sent a lieutenant to investigate, he’d have been able to forestall Cork’s later machinations.


            But he was well-nigh certain, after weeks of thinking upon the matter, that the horrible accident that had taken the queen’s life was simply that. An accident, unforeseen by anyone. True enough, the sudden appearance of the Trained Bands at that particular time and place might have been the work of Cork, or one of his accomplices. But the Bands hadn’t caused the accident. Leebrick and his mercenary company could have dispersed them in a few minutes. Something else had caused the carriage to race off, and there could only be two explanations. Either the king had panicked—the queen, more likely, with the king acquiescing—or the commander of the escort had somehow caused it to happen.


            Again, as he had dozens of times before over the past weeks, Thomas reviewed his knowledge of the king’s character, and that of Captain Leebrick—and again, as he had dozens of times before, came to the same conclusion. That Charles or Henrietta Maria would panic in such a situation was not difficult to believe at all. That Leebrick was a traitor was not impossible, but Wentworth thought it extremely unlikely. All the more so since one of the guards keeping him captive in the Bloody Tower had let slip that there was a giant manhunt on for Leebrick and two of his lieutenants. They’d been taken for questioning by Cork, it seemed, and had then made a daring—and quite bloody—escape from his mansion.


            That same bloody escape, of course, was being pointed to by Cork and his party as proof of Leebrick’s complicity in a treasonous plot masterminded by Wentworth himself. But Thomas knew that was nonsense, and nonsense thrice over.


            First, because as the supposed mastermind of the plot, he knew for a certainty it had never existed.


            Secondly, because the supposed plot was preposterous to begin with—which was exactly the reason, he was quite certain, that Cork had not as yet pressed any formal charges against the Earl of Strafford. The charge was simply incoherent, looked at from the standpoint of logic.


            What was he trying to do? Take power? Thomas Wentworth had already had the power. As much as any minister of any king in English history had ever had. The only step up he could have taken would have been to depose the dynasty and replace it with one of his own—which was so ludicrous a proposition that he wondered if anyone even in that den of fools that called itself Parliament could say it publicly and keep a straight face.


            In the end, he imagined, they’d accuse of him of having plotted to make himself “Lord Protector of England,” using the known history of that other world as his guide. They might even go so far—probably would, in fact, since Thomas had never made a secret of his visits to the dungeon—accuse him of plotting with Cromwell himself.


            Finally, it was nonsense because of the business with Leebrick. If he’d been working for Cork, why not simply pay him his thirty pieces of silver? Richard Boyle could certainly afford it. And even if one pre-supposed that Boyle had wanted to silence Leebrick and his men, surely—with a prepared plot and a cabal in place—he could have managed it without there having been the possibility of such a flamboyant escape by his intended victims.


            No, none of it made sense. Happenstance alone had given Cork his opening, and he’d taken it.


            Bleakly, Thomas stared out the window. His weeks of captivity had forced honesty upon him. Well, not that, exactly. Thomas thought he’d always been an honest man. But he’d now allow that he’d also been a man who was so intent on the rightness of his own course that he’d been oblivious—indifferent, certainly—to what other people around him might think of that course. Especially those who purported to be its supporters.


            He’d made enemies, many of them, and many of them unnecessary ones. Cork had seized upon that, too.


            Thomas could also have made the walk to Tower Green in two minutes, and someday he might very well do so. Walk to the same spot on the Green where William, Lord Hastings, had lost his head in 1483. The same spot where Henry VIII had beheaded two of his wives, and Queen Mary had beheaded Lady Jane Grey.


            Not likely, though. The Tower Green was only used for executions that the crown wanted to be kept reasonably private. Most men lost their heads on Tower Hill, in front of the cheering mob—the London mob that detested Wentworth, because he’d stifled them. Cork would surely want to pander to that same mob.


            So be it. Thomas knew now, with the advantage of hindsight, that Cork was repeating many of his own mistakes—and adding ones of his own into the bargain. Richard Boyle would find that the mob was fickle, and the king’s favor more fickle still. He’d seized the power. Now, let him try to keep it.


            A clatter at the door announced the arrival of the cleaning woman. The guards who accompanied her, rather. Left to her own devices, the woman would have knocked before she entered. The guards simply slammed the door aside. It was just one of the many petty little arrogances they indulged themselves in, not realizing that their effect was the exact opposite of what they intended. The Earl of Strafford knew the ways of power far better than his captors. It was not true, of course, that all bullies were cowards. Many of them were not. But it was true that all bullies were insecure. Fearful of the world, if not the man they confronted at the moment.


            She was a new one, he saw, but obviously a Warder’s kin like the former one. Perhaps his regular cleaning woman had taken sick. That would hardly be surprising, given the cavalier way the new mercenaries had ignored Rita Simpson’s sanitary arrangements. Wentworth worried now about the health of his own wife and children.


            The woman placed the basket of foodstuffs upon the table and then went about her business quickly and efficiently, while the guards waited at the door, lounging against it in boredom and chatting idly. Wentworth himself simply remained at the window, ignoring them all.


            To his surprise, the cleaning woman spoke to him briefly on her way out. Very softly, in words the guards couldn’t hear.


            “Make sure you try the new bread, My Lord. It’s quite tasty.”


            He stared at her for a moment, as she hurried toward the door. Then, looked back at the window. A few seconds later, he heard the guards closing the door and bolting it from the outside. That took a few seconds, since the bolt was a heavy one and they’d added two more.


            Even if they decided to re-enter, they couldn’t do so quickly. Now intently curious, Thomas went over to the table and picked up the loaf of bread. When he broke it open, he discovered that a note had been tucked inside. He extracted the little piece of paper and went over to the fireplace. This early in spring, there was a fire going. Not a big one, but big enough to consume any small piece of paper that got tossed into it, within a few seconds.


            It was a short note, with no signature. But Thomas was fairly certain that he recognized the handwriting. Lady Mailey’s, he thought. He and the American ambassadress had exchanged a fair amount of correspondence over the months since he’d had her and her party sequestered in St. Thomas’ Tower—which he could have reached from here with a walk of less than a minute. He’d been struck by the combination of her excellent penmanship and the complete absence of any of the flourishes that people in his time who had good penmanship normally added as a matter of course.


            A very short note. King James. Jeremiah 51, Verse 44.


            The one book they’d allowed him—no way to refuse, not that book—was the Bible. And it was the King James version, of course.


            He found the passage quickly.


            And I will punish Bel in Babylon, and I will bring forth out of his mouth that which he hath swallowed up: and the nations shall not flow together any more unto him: yea, the wall of Babylon shall fall.


            Slowly, he set the Bible aside and stared at the fire. Then, placed the note into the flames. Then, went back to staring at those same flames, as they consumed the wood that had once been solid and hard.